A couple of years ago there was quite a flurry of discussion, panel topics and articles bemoaning the state of public relations relative to its entrenched use of words over pictures. The reason for the hand wringing was that most public relations professionals were still focused on the highly non-visual means of communicating through press releases, email pitches and written statements. Who could blame the profession for their concern considering the growing propensity of the world to be far more enamored with pictures and video over text? Meanwhile, ad agencies, design shops and digital production houses were all beating PR to the visual punch.
Unfortunately, the most substantial visual element that PR could lay claim to in this burgeoning visual age is the popularity and use of infographics. While both praised and decried, infographics at least gave PR a means to an end in terms of conveying data rich information in what could be a visual but meaningful way.
But infographics aren’t the same as the pictures and video that is becoming the shared content of choice in social media. Even the most popular text intensive social media platform – Twitter – has added greater ability to share videos and pictures; and one visual oriented social channel after another has entered the market. Even popular video sharing sites like YouTube, Vine and Vimeo are being chased down by the likes of up and comers Meerkat and Periscope (connected to Twitter).
While it can be argued that any self-respecting PR person has known the value of a good visual for some time, product shots or even short explainer videos accompanying a press release don’t really count. This isn’t visual story telling. It’s just attaching a visual to a written document. That’s not the way people want their information, how they consume it or even the most effective way to communicate it.
To provide some idea as to the impact of video from a marketing standpoint, consider these facts about video usage from an article in Business2Community
- The use of video content for marketing increased 73% this year; use of infographics grew 51%.
- Articles with images get 94% more views than those without.
- Posts with videos attract three times as many inbound links as plain text posts.
- 62% of marketers use video in their content marketing.
- Two-thirds of firms plan to increase spending on video marketing in the coming year.
The future of communications is clearly established in the visual arts, so how do PR agencies match or even catch up to ad agencies, digital agencies and design firms to ensure relevancy into the future? Here are five steps you can take:
- Take a class – the most common forms of visual storytelling are movies and television. Encourage, maybe even require, your staff to take screenwriting classes. Alternatively, periodically bring a professional screenwriter or script doctor in. Maybe even someone who writes and produces commercials. The ability to tell a story in 10-30 seconds is an art and most of the video content out there is going to continue to fall into this category.
- Push visuals as a given not a choice. Challenge your staff, your clients, and your agency to be more visual. Eliminate superfluous words in favor of stronger visuals. Guy Kawasaki, the former Apple marketing exec who worked on the introduction of the first Macintosh in 1984, famously penned the 10/20/30 rule for PowerPoint presentations. Ten slides, 20 minutes, no smaller than 30-point type. The latter being the most important from a visual standpoint because once you use 30-point type, the available real estate on a slide drops drastically.
- Hire for the skill. It’s impossible to get an entire agency or in-house department caught up in this movement at once. So finding people already skilled in the art of visual storytelling is a possible shortcut. Just understand that what they make up for in skillset they may lose in understanding the difference between PR and advertising. What’s interesting is how many PR firms are responding by hiring people outside of the typical PR agency world. Last fall, Edelman, the world’s largest PR firm, went on a hiring spree adding several senior level staff all from advertising and marketing firms.
- Share insights. The Millennial generation is the first generation that has grown up never knowing a world without the web. Their lives are so intrinsically connected to it that they are hard-pressed to fathom what life must have been like without it. This generation is also driving the visual evolution. So tap the members of that generation for personal and broader insights, and then feel free to share. They get that this is part of the process.
- Don’t fight it. For those in PR who are proud of their writing skills and accomplishments and may believe that the emphasis on visuals over text is like equating graphic novels to classic literature, have to realize that hanging on to outmoded methods is a fast track to irrelevancy. The ability to craft a well-written sentence then string several of those together to explain a particular point is still valuable. But the ability to mix pictures with those words to tell a more compelling story now trumps that ability.
There is a caveat. No matter how visually oriented the world becomes, everything can’t be about a story in pictures. Some aspects of the world will continue to become more complicated. Connecting words and pictures to make the biggest impact will be critical toward communicating those complicated elements in the most understandable way possible. The future of PR may depend on it.